Global Trade Could Hinder Higher Education, Report Says
According to a new report, some U.S. higher education officials are worried that international trade agreements could commercialize education and have a negative impact on the higher education community as a whole, community colleges and four-year institutions alike. The lines are blurred, they say, and many educators are asking the question: what does education have to do with trade policy?
The report, “Higher Education and International Trade Agreements: An Examination of the Threats and Promises of Globalization,” was released by the National Education Association and says “the impact of international trade negotiations is not always the first issue that comes to mind in terms of debates over educational policy.”
But Josh Bivens, the author of the report, said it “serves as a primer on those issues for the higher education community.”
Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, said the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is a top issue. “The outcome of GATS negotiations has the potential to affect a broad range of education policies,” the report says. “Two of the most important of these issues include the rise of distance learning and information and communication technology as a tool in higher education and the public versus private mix of providing higher education.”
Rachel Hendrickson, coordinator for higher education at the NEA, said the report was in direct response to increasing concerns regarding higher education and international trade issues.
Although many higher education officials believe that cross-border education could help other countries benefit through training and education and that it’s for the good of the global community, they are concerned about the commercialization of education and what might happen when education intersects with trade policy.
“Cross-border education can do all kinds of good things. It can bring new programs to different countries. It can bring distance learning,” said Dr. Madeleine Green, vice president and director of the Center for Institutional and International Initiatives at the American Council on Education. “You don’t need GATS for cross-border education. So you have to distinguish what’s good about cross-border education and why do you need a trade agreement? You need a trade agreement to remove obstacles to commercial trade. It is not about facilitating all of cross-border education, in that sense, it’s about removing obstacles to trade.”
There seems to be a consensus among those in higher education that trade agreements are threatening to turn education into a tradable commodity.
Green said there are ample reasons to be concerned with trade agreements, particularly since there are major differences between the trade specialists who are managing the negotiations and educators.
“The people who are negotiating are trade specialists; they’re not educators, so when the people who are defining the framework for cross-border education are trade people … we worry about decisions that will be made,” Green said.
Barry Stearns, a professional counselor at Michigan’s Lansing Community College and former president of the National Council for Higher Education, said, “Education is for the public good. What they’re trying to do is change it to a tradable commodity.”
The ambiguity of the language in trade agreements, particularly the language in GATS, makes those in higher education uneasy. Renate Bridenthal, chair of the International Committee at Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, said she is worried about the language of GATS and that she and her colleagues are watching it closely.
The NEA’s Hendrickson agreed.
“There’s no clear black and white,” Hendrickson said. “You have to know where you fit.”
As trade policy and trade negotiations progress, many experts agree that there should be active dialogue between policy-makers and educators — but at the same time, they say, that dialogue seems to be the missing link.
“The dialogue is a missing ingredient,” Stearns said. “It’s essential and it’s almost nonexistent at this point. The advisers we’re seeing in and out of policy-making are coming from the private sector, not public education.”
It’s critical that educators and higher education officials voice their concerns, Bivens said. He said the higher education community has to come together to discuss what it thinks should happen in terms of education and commercialization. After those discussions, he said, they have to initiate dialogue and debate with policy-makers.
“That’s the real first step that will make these trade agreements quite relevant or not so relevant for the U.S. market,” Bivens said. “Once education starts to be commercialized, then prospects for regulating it are going to be reduced, because if you try to regulate something that’s commercial activity, you’ll find yourself in violation of these international trade treaties.”
ACE’s Green said she’s concerned about the long-term effects that trade agreements will have on higher education.
“We’re just worried how is this really going to play out,” she said.
— By Patricia Troumpoucis
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